Each of us knows the playbook. The use of passive voice. The obfuscations through vague generalizations. Subtle suggestions of victimhood. When a public figure, politician, or pastor is caught in a scandal or moral failure, this is what we’ve grown to expect: a confession performed as a thinly disguised mix of brand management and damage control.
In My Hero Academia’s sixth season, the global anime phenomenon demonstrates a better way than the self-serving non-apology apologies we’ve come to expect from fallen public figures. In the episode “Izuku Midoriya and Tomura Shigaraki,” Pro Heroes face a swift and demoralizing fall from grace. In the aftermath, My Hero Academia (MHA) illustrates the importance of confession as a hard but liberating act, one that undercuts our bent to construct idols out of those we deem successful or heroic.
Set in a world where ordinary people inherit superpowers called “quirks,” MHA centers on the clash between heroes and villains through the journey of Izuku Midoryia, a quirkless teen who aspires to be a professional hero, which is society’s highest honor. Pro Heroes, in MHA, exist not to be served but to serve as the true defenders and protectors of Japan and the world.
But in Season 6, the otherwise lighthearted anime shifts into a gritty mood: both heroes-in-training like Midoriya, as well as Pro Heroes, are reeling—physically and emotionally—from a full-scale war against the villainous Paranormal Liberation Front. Japan’s cities are decimated, as is public trust in Pro Heroes. Shrewdly, the villains have unearthed a scandal involving two top heroes. Dabi, a destructive Joker-like figure, performs his greatest act of destruction by eroding public trust in the very notion of heroism.
Via video, Dabi reveals himself as the lost son of the top-ranked hero, Endeavor. At a crucial time when the public needs reassurance in heroic ideals and a hero to believe in, the number-one hero is exposed for what he truly is: a cold-hearted, abusive father trying to compensate for his secret familial failures by being a great hero in public.
According to Henri Nouwen, one of the persistent temptations of life and leadership is the temptation to be spectacular. The allure of projecting oneself as successful and without any blemish of weakness is intoxicating in Christian leadership and in our “competitive society.” But what happens when the heroic, flawless self we project in public is revealed to possess significant cracks? What happens when our true self—weakness, sin, vices, and all—goes public? At this point, the broken human bent is to hide through the playbook of brand management, which is simply a new variation of the first humans’ attempt to conceal guilt and shame.
Here MHA suggests an alternate path. With the media hungry for a public response to Dabi’s accusation, Endeavor enters the fray and speaks at the press conference with stoic humility. His massive frame is not cloaked in his spectacular fiery costume, but a somber black suit. The moment gives the impression of a funeral—indeed, it is the death of his false, heroic self and the acknowledgment of a morbid truth. Endeavor looks out at the crowd and confesses that Dabi is the son he hid and neglected before bowing humbly in a gesture of penance.
What happens when the heroic, flawless self we project in public is revealed to possess significant cracks?
It’s easy to blame fallen public figures for hiding their issues, but it’s partly our desire to be enamored with flawless figures of perfect might and unassailable virtue that incentivizes the hiding and non-apologies of which we’ve become painfully accustomed. MHA is perceptive here as well. While most of the public has turned their back on Pro Heroes, other public voices cry, “Please say you didn’t do anything wrong” and “We’re worried, so tell us it’ll be fine.” Rather than recognize that the fallenness in us is equally (or more) resident in our heroes–leaders, pastors, mentors—we project an impossible standard upon them in order to attain the warm assurance that through them, all will be well.
This is a form of idol worship that Scripture warns against: put not your trust in princes nor in a son of man in whom there is no salvation. Endeavor’s confession denies the public the hero worship they desperately crave. If there is salvation for the Japan of MHA, it will be hard-won through flawed heroes, not easily given through spectacular ones.
Strangely, the anime does not seem to recognize how poignant Endeavor’s public confession truly is. One might expect that in true anime fashion, the scene might feature a close-up or pulsating, emotive music common to the genre. Instead, the moment is brief and quiet. Endeavor’s confession feels more poignant in the manga. Here, readers can linger over the facial expressions of the reporters and the textual description that “Endeavor spoke freely and openly about . . . his and his family’s sickening past.” There is a taut expression drawn on Endeavor’s face, which suggests ounces of relief but a greater weight of shame and a determination to atone.
In both mediums, MHA gives readers and viewers a refreshed imagination that eschews confession as a performance and highlights the necessity and possibility of the real thing. This itself is healing for people prone to conceal and an age prone to cynicism.
Yet the show suggests we’d rather have our public figures posture as sturdy idols than as vulnerable humans. In the wake of Endeavor’s confession, the show cuts to reaction shots from the public. Ordinary folks viewing the news conference on their mobile devices quip in disgust, “I don't care if you have to lie, just tell me that it’s not true.” Do we prefer lies over truth if it means our idols stay in place to soothe our fears?
MHA wisely avoids a miracle notion of confession, the pretense that mere apologetic words can instantaneously restore relationships. The public still distrusts its heroes. Endeavor’s villainous son must still be reckoned with. And the fallout from Endeavor’s true character is far from settled. And yet, for Endeavor, all this is less a fall from grace and more a fall into it. Certainly, the public is angered, but his family was already distant because of his callousness and toxicity. Now, his tears and words of confession draw them near to help him “not bear this burden alone.”
Though performative apologies have come to be expected, MHA, in the idealism which is a staple of shonen anime, suggests we should never make peace with them. Rather we are to seek not the path of the spectacular but that of the heroic. True heroes recognize and admit when they have played the villain. Only then can signs of grace and healing, however faint, be found.